Blaze against the Machine: “A Burning” by Megha Majumdar

Megha Majumdar’s much-awaited debut novel, A Burning opens with the firebombing of a packed train in West Bengal which leaves social media in a flux of public outrage, calls for justice, and anger at the incompetence and alleged complicity of the local police. It is here, on Facebook, that 22-year-old Jivan uses a new smartphone purchased from her own modest salary to register her indignation: “If the police watched them die, doesn’t that mean,” she writes, “that the government is also a terrorist?” It is not much later that she, a poor Muslim salesclerk, is hauled into a police van and promptly slapped with charges of sedition, anti-national sentiment, and terrorist conspiracy.

Both the title and opening of A Burning immediately evoke the current political climate in India; the book’s urgency flaring because of its release in the wake of the recent Delhi Pogrom, which earlier this year set India’s capital ablaze into fiery violence right under the authorities’ noses, and for which they continue to arrest and scapegoat student activists such as Safoora Zargar to this day.

Art imitates life in ‘the world’s largest democracy’

The fiery plot in this book is propelled by the lives of its three main narrators, intertwined by the terror catastrophe and by their respective desires for upward mobility: while Jivan years to leave behind the poverty that renders her life dispensable and inconsequential in the eyes of the world; Lovely, the lively transgender actress whom Jivan teaches English, aspires to attain stardom of the likes of her idols, Priyanka Chopra and Shah Rukh Khan. The third character, a man known simply as PT Sir, is a physical education teacher at Jivan’s former school, whose is enticed by the power and prestige afforded to him under the thumb of an ascending right-wing luminary — even if it comes at the cost of his morality.

In fact, morality and the politics of social ascent is as dominant a strain here as the injustice meted out by a broken system. Lovely knows that Jivan is not guilty of terrorism, but her virtue and eagerness to testify in favour of her tutor is challenged when it becomes a barrier on the road to her own dreams. Similarly, PT Sir faces a choice between conscientious responsibility and expedite ‘justice’ built on lies when he becomes witness to the brutal massacre of a family on falsified, communally motivated grounds.

Majumdar’s pen is even more unforgiving when it comes to her portrayal of institutional power. The living conditions and treatment that befall Jivan’s family throughout the book shed light on the crassness of officials as well as that of civil society, while Lovely’s experiences further accentuate the perilous way in which gender, class, religion and superstition figure in such a society. The corruption and complicity of so-called pillars of democracy are laid bare as Jivan’s trial progresses. The manipulation of Jivan’s story by a journalist shows what drives the Indian media, while the Jana Kalyan Party’s burial of the family massacre reveals the malevolence of vote-hungry parties.

Underlying every moment in A Burning is a scathing critique of a rotten, corrupt system — a machine whose cogs are oiled only by show of affluence or influence and whose courtrooms are similarly compromised; a system built on the undeterred abuse of power at the expense of the poor and the marginalised, all while maintaining a façade of integrity and rectitude.

In a country where justice is perpetually delayed, it is also equally bought, sold and mispronounced, as seen in the case of some of Jivan’s prison mates who are jailed for having acted in self-defence against an abusive husband or a streetside molester; whereas a film producer found guilty in a hit-and-run case is allowed to roam free. Similarly, the government sacrifices Jivan to please an uproarious public and secure their votes in further elections, even as students protest her fate and the true perpetrators escape unscathed. Indeed, A Burning emerges as a fierce literary indictment of a sham democracy at a time when such sentiment is needed the most.

As literary as political

Majumdar’s book with its poignancy and pointed critique of turbulence without systemic change is reminiscent of the works of Arundhati Roy and Rohinton Mistry, albeit with a far sparser prose style. Immersive and intensely readable, A Burning is written in short chapters whose brevity pack a knack for attention to small details and evoke locale, mood, and character with surprising, almost uncanny, expertness; the sights and sounds of Kolkata, in particular, are rendered with an acuity that can only come from experience.

However, peculiarities of translation make it evident that this is a book written chiefly for western eyes: certain phrases, figures of speech, names of movies are translated awkwardly, and the descriptions of Indian foods are doubly so (one tends to stop paying attention to these after seeing kochuri being described as “fried dough”). A similar issue affects the otherwise remarkable characterisation of Lovely, whose verbs always conjugating in the present continuous — “With my hips swinging like this and like that, I am walking past the guava seller” — is perhaps effective in hinting at her speaking in the Bengali, but also serves to somewhat infantilise her.

Yet, it is the writing — its nuance and vividness, its empathic understanding of variant lives, its honesty and ferocity, its gripping urgency — that makes this book such an unforgettably compelling read despite what some may call a predictable plotline. In fact, the very predictability of the story makes A Burning all the more heart-rending; a fictional world that comes alive with the aim to urge the reader to question what it is that makes such tragedy predictable in the first place.

A Burning Cover Penguin

A Burning (2020) is published by Alfred A. Knopf and Penguin-Randomhouse India.

Want a copy? Please consider supporting a local independent bookstore in these tough times instead of ordering off Amazon! Click here for a list of Independent bookstores that are delivering across India.

Coronavirus and the Ministry of Utmost Priorities

In November 2019, it became public that the WhatsApp data of 121 Indians; including over 30 journalists, activists and lawyers critical of the government’s policies; was compromised through an Israeli spyware named Pegasus. Most of those affected during this ‘snoopgate’ alleged governmental responsibility and involvement in the scandal – indeed, NSO, the makers of Pegasus, clarified that the software is licensed only to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The Ministry of Home Affairs not only denied the involvement of the Government of India, but accused WhatsApp of not informing them in a timely fashion – and when it was revealed that WhatsApp did, in fact, notify the government of the issue twice, they said that the information was too “vague” and “jargonistic” to take action. When questioned in parliament by DMK’s Dayanidhi Maran, the MHA in a fantastic non-answer cited its powers under Section 69 of the Information Technology Act 2000, which allows government agencies to intercept, monitor or decrypt “any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource”.

On Thursday,the MHA issued an advisory regarding Zoom, a popular video conferencing platform, citing it as “unsafe” and vulnerable to unauthorized interception, and issuing guidelines that its burgeoning private usership, increased in light of the Coronavirus lockdown and ‘work-from-home’ compulsions, can follow. At the same time, the government is pushing forward its Aarogya Setu app as a tool for tackling the Coronavirus pandemic – the app saw over 5 million downloads within three days of launch, and is being staunchly and steadily promoted on social media and through schools and government offices. However, privacy focused groups such as Internet Freedom Foundation have raised alarm due to the app’s non-compliance with globally-held privacy standards. There are widespread concerns over its scope for data collection and capacity for surveillance, the lack of transparency in the absence of a legal framework governing its use, and the lack of clarity on which ministries can access the data collected through it. Plainly speaking, the purpose of the app is vague enough to be expanded and exploited by the government.

This raises two questions about the government – and specifically the Ministry of Home Affairs – regarding their inclination to track and monitor citizens and what they wish to achieve from it, and regarding the matters they consider important enough to provide comment on.

Both questions come into sharp focus in context of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the events surrounding it. Both the violence at Jamia Milia Islamia and the riots which broke out in North-east Delhi on February 23rd came as offshoots of the government’s decision to implement a nationwide National Register of Citizens (later retracted in a mind-boggling set of contradictory statements by Modi and Shah), actions that would most drastically affect India’s Muslim population, in addition to women and the poor. The MHA’s guidelines on Zoom calls come in wake of Home Minister Amit Shah’s unwavering public silence with regards to the Delhi Riots. While Shah did make an insubstantial statement of “grief” in the Rajya Sabha a few days ago, his barely-articulate  assurances with regards to the implications of the NRC and CAA for minorities to ring hollow. Similarly, while Shah ordered the Delhi Police to take strict action against the man who fired a gun at the Anti-CAA protesters at Jamia Milia Islamia on January 30, not much progress has been seen since.

On the contrary, while panic over the Coronavirus pandemic is taking over, it is the students who were victim of these attacks that are being taken into custody under the pretext of alleged incitement of the riots. In the past week, the media coordinator from Jamia Coordination Committee has been arrested, along with at least two more students all on account of “communal conspiracy,” while over 50 students who were part of the protests have been served notices to appear for an investigation on the 20th of March even as lockdown continues to be enforced. Students in Delhi are exiting protest groups on WhatsApp en masse, alleging that members are being tracked and arrested indiscriminately. In fact, while the country is struggling to cope with the implications of the Coronavirus, law enforcement energies are being directed overwhelmingly towards arrests – recently, Dalit rights activist and scholar Anand Teltumbde – one of the people whose phones were revealed to have been spied on in November – was taken into custody by one arm of the government even as its mouthpiece, the Prime Minister of India, ironically greeted people and remembered Babasaheb Ambedkar on his 129th birth anniversary.

In all of this, the MHA’s priorities seem worrying and self-defensive. Be it surveillance or arrests, the government seems to be acting in shoddy self-interest. Whether it is also in the interest of the nation and its people is for us to truly ponder on.

Cult of Hatred: Pulwama, Terrorism and the unsteady politics of Nationalism


A convoy carrying CRPF personnel in Pulwama, Jammu & Kashmir, is infiltrated and attacked by a suicide bomber belonging to the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammad, killing over 40 jawaans. This is one of the worst terror attacks faced by India in decades.


Mobs and processions throughout the country proclaim Pakistan Murdabad: Death to Pakistan. Debates on television call for war.


Veteran Cricketer-turned-Comedian and Politician Navjot Singh Sidhu condemns the attacks, and asks if it is justified to hold an entire nation responsible for the acts of some. He is immediately branded pro-Pakistan – and therefore, for many, anti-national – and faces massive backlash on social media and elsewhere. A day after the remark, Sidhu is speculated to be sacked from the television comedy show he has been associated with for years.


Amid mob action by ABVP, VHP, and Bajrang Dal, two colleges in Dehradun – Baba Farid Institute of Technology, and Alpine College of Management and Technology – declare that they would not be admitting any Kashmiri students into their institutions starting the following academic year. Meanwhile, demands are made for the dismissal of all Kashmiris who are currently studying here.


“How’s the josh?” echo the voices of the millions who are yet to recover from the hangover of the catchphrase from the propagandistic movie Uri and from our Prime Minister. There is talk in India that war is imminent, and even necessary – that Pakistan’s crime is so heinous that it demands blood, even if it has to include our own. “How’s the josh?” shout some mourners at a martyr’s funeral, weaving irony by calling for more war and battle – more bloodshed.
How can we possibly avenge martyrdom by creating more martyrs?

When on the 14th of February, terrorists killed over forty personnel of the Central Reserve Police Forces at Pulwama, the wave of anger and mourning rising in response coagulated into two extremely dangerous kinds of hatred – that against Pakistan, and that against the people of Kashmir. Unfortunately for nation, this cult of hatred appears to be unsuspectingly and consciously cultivated.

There are levels to the wrongness of the discussions we are having as a nation at this time of crisis. The fact that a blind chant for “showing Pakistan its place” is catching on makes one more and more aware of the acute impact of exaggerated nationalism under sway of the current government. In the environment of a constant us-versus-them that we are in today, very biased and miopic opinions are magnified and disseminated. The focus today is on building militaristically strong states – hence the inordinately high emphasis on defence and armament everywhere. When you bring this form of post-Cold War power-fetishism together with the polarizing forces of nationalism, a potent hunger for war is formed. It is this hunger that is being fed to the masses. At the core of it all, it is still a hunger borne of hatred.

It is a strange kind of hatred, too. It may be less evident in the case of Pakistan, whom Indian governments have strategically learnt to hate; apparently in order to survive; but whom the BJP has time and again wished to ‘bring back’ under the fold of an Akhand Bharat. The strangeness is even more pronounced in the context of Kashmir, whose people have been consciously othered even as every attempt is made to keep them within the confines of India. The infantilisation of Kashmir in the Indian political ethos is heartbreakingly paradoxical: the idea is that Kashmiris don’t know what’s best for them, they cannot fend for their own selves, and hence must bow to whatever forms of protection India, the looming patriarch, provides them – especially against Pakistan. However, no stone that leads some of them to gravitate towards rebellion and militancy is left unturned, with the AFSPA, the contentious ground of Section 370, and the constant associations of Kashmiris with Pakistan muddled together with the constant attempt to dissociate the two completely and antagonistically. The hatred that is cultivated when a Kashmiri youth like Adil Ahmed Dar – identified as the suicide bomber employed in the Pulwama attacks – reaches its most unreasonable peaks when all Kashmiris are associated with militancy and terrorism. Ironically, most Indians do see the flaw of that logic when faced with the anti-Indian Armed Forces sentiment that prevails in many parts of Jammu and Kashmir due to the actions of some of its men.

Unsurprisingly, then, when Navjot Singh Sidhu asks if it is correct to blame the people of Pakistan for the acts of terror outfits and its possible sponsorship by their government, Indians choose to ostracise him instead, forgetting his call for strong action against the perpetrators. We choose to mob up and say Pakistan Murdabad, and to denounce all Kashmiri within the state and elsewhere in the country, and to call for war.

Let’s try to remember what we are forgetting. Of course, taking firm action against the perpetrators is necessary. Firm action has already been initiated against Pakistan, first in terms of India’s withdrawal of the former’s status as Most Favoured Nation in trade and of hiking up the customs duty on imports from the country by 200%, and later in terms of a diplomatic push to Indian allies – already affirmatively responded to by the US, France, Russia and Iran – in restricting engagement with Pakistan. This economic pressure on the Imran Khan government’s already precarious financial position is supplemented by the high probability of Pakistan being blacklisted for terror financing under the Financial Action Task Force, which could have very serious implications. Thus, conditions are being created for Pakistan to take fast action against its terror-breeding enclaves, or to face international isolation on a scale that could wreck fatal havoc for the nation if substantiated. Pakistan has already called back their ambassador in India for consultation, a visible result of this pressure.

In such a situation, the idea of ‘limited war’ – which is unfortunately and alarmingly being advocated through the media – needs careful reconsideration. While all sorts of military action, if taken, could lead to a restoration or rise in the Modi government’s receding popularity right before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections are to be held, war will also be detrimental to the Indian economy – even if conducted on a limited scale – in ways that could set us back by decades. Moreover, with the Donald Trump presidency in the US, chances for US intervention in an Indo-Pak militaristic conflict resolution are bleak, especially in context of the US wishing to withdraw completely from Afghanistan. In fact, in case of an escalation of conflict, China – who has strong ties with and major investments in Pakistan – will be the intervening party. This can lead to a complete overturn of the dynamics at play, and not in a good way for us.

It is also important to remember the human costs of war. Bloodshed and martyrdom cannot be avenged by its larger-scale repetition. While the military is ready to lay down its lives for the nation, it shouldn’t have to, in face of other alternatives. Thus, the cry for war seems like a bad idea on almost all fronts – a good idea only for nationalistic political players, and not the nation itself.

Let us refer again to Sidhu, who is on the receiving end of massive flak for making some well-reasoned arguments. Speaking to the media outside the Punjab Assembly where he is minister, Sidhu reminded the media that it was the BJP government in 1999 that released Masood Azhar, chief of the outfit which has taken responsibility for Pulwama, in exchange for Indians held hostage at Kandahar. Of course, Kandahar was a high pressure situation with the immediacy of nearly 200 civilian lives at stake, but the NDA government’s Crisis Management Group did let the situation elevate when it could have been resolved at Amritsar, where the hijacked plane carrying the hostages first landed. Sidhu’s remark thus indirectly leads us to another important aspect of assessing the Pulwama attacks that is amiss in the angry Indian political consciousness right now: that of questioning those responsible from within our system.

One facet of the current wave of nationalism is the equation of the government with the nation in absolution, which has given rise to a trend where citizens are discouraged from questioning the government. However, it seems highly unlikely that a security attack on such a scale could have been carried out without some kind of help from insiders. How was the Indian intelligence unable to respond to such activity, which requires intensive and long-term planning and was detected and warned against? It is impossible for the suicide bomber in a private vehicle make it to such a high security area with staggering the amounts of explosives employed in the attack without either gross negligence or corrupt associating from within. A truly benevolent brand of nationalism would push for questioning in regard to these intricacies so that justice can be sought for the martyrs and the nation, and further crises avoided.

Meanwhile, it is also important to be cognizant of the many divisive politics being played out behind the angry mask of anti-terrorism: the harassment and antagonism against Kashmiris in specific and Muslims in general in light of the attack is a result of a mentality that seeks to divide and rule. It only helps the cause of radical militants on one hand and religious nationalism on the other. It is imperative that we do not let these truly anti-Indian elements win.

A situation such as the one in India right now calls for rationality, not only on part of the government but on part of the citizens it responds to. It is important not to give into the instigatory narratives disseminated through the televised media and through angry mobs, but to push the government into striving for better, more effective solutions.

You may follow updates on the events around the Pulwama attacks here.